Ancient practitioners have likened yoga to a living tree with six branches coming from the trunk, with each branch having its own unique function relating to a particular lifestyle. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is one of the six darshanas of Hindu or Vedic schools and, alongside the Bhagvada Gita and Hatha Yoga Pradipika, is a milestone in the history of Yoga. Though brief, the Yoga Sutras are an enormously influential work, just as relevant for yoga philosophy and practice today, as when written many thousands of years ago.
The six branches of Yoga tend to have some aspects in common and familiarizing oneself with all six will certainly help in the selection of your own yoga programme that incorporates routines that appeal from any of the six branches. Asanas or postures, Pranayama or breath control, these two disciplines along with meditation and a strict moral code are the fundamentals of the practice of yoga.
Introduced in the 15th century by an Indian sage as a preparatory stage of physical purification to enable the body to be fit for the practice of higher meditation as in Raja Yoga, Ha means sun and tha means moon, a reference to the energy channels of the body. Fully opened energy channels allow the body to become supple enough to attain the mental disciplines of Raja Yoga. In practice, both Hatha and Raja Yoga are inter-related and dependent upon each other. Western practitioners associate yoga with the hatha branch to attain mental and physical wellbeing.
Raja translates as ‘royal’ and meditation is central to this branch of yoga, which has eight side branches or limbs in an order that must be strictly followed. We start with Yama meaning ethical standards, Niyama – self discipline, asana – posture, pranayama – breathing control, pratyahara – sensory withdrawal, dharana – meditation, samadhi – ecstasy or final liberation. Those inclined to introspection or meditation are best suited to Raja yoga.
Though members of religious orders and spiritual communities devote themselves to this yoga branch, one does not have to embrace a monastic lifestyle to gain from the benefits of practicing Raja Yoga.
The fundamental principle of Karma Yoga is that what we experience now is created by our past actions, whether in this life or a previous one. Once we understand this principal, then we can ensure all our present actions help create a future free of negativity and selfishness. To practice Karma Yoga is to lead a life of selfless service to others.
Bhakti Yoga is yoga of the heart, a branch of devotion Bhakti is the Sanskrit term for selfless love of God and mankind. Bhakti principles are universal and common to many world religions. By following the path of bhakti we learn to channel our emotions, accept and have tolerance for all those that cross our path.
This is the branch of knowledge, the yoga of the mind and is both the most difficult and the most direct of the six branches. It is yoga of the mind, of wisdom, the path of the sage or scholar. The practitioners of Jnana Yoga develop their intellects by intensive study, particularly but not confined to, the yoga tradition and other spiritual teachings. This is the path that most appeals to the intellectuals pursuing the practice of yoga. Within the context of our Western religious traditions, Kabalistic scholars, Jesuit priests, and Benedictine monks epitomise Jnana Yogis.
Tantra, from the Sanskrit ‘to weave’ or ‘loom’, is the branch of yoga that practices ritual as a means of experiencing the divine in all our activities. Probably, the most misunderstood or misinterpreted of all the yogas, tantra, the sixth branch, is the pathway of ritual, an in tantric practice; we experience the Divine in everything we do. A reverential attitude is, therefore cultivated, encouraging a ritualistic approach to life. In essence, tantra is the most esoteric of the six major branches and appeals to those yogis who enjoy ceremony and relate to the feminine principle of the cosmos, which they call Shakti.
In the West, the tantric path of yoga has become associated almost entirely with sexual activity. It is because of this emphasis on only one aspect of this branch that it has become misinterpreted and misunderstood by so many. It is amusing to note that, although tantra has become associated exclusively with sexual ritual, most tantric schools actually recommend a celibate lifestyle. The ‘Kama Sutra’ an ancient Hindu book of sexual techniques is the best known example of the lack of understanding of the true objectives of tantra yoga.
A discipline that leads to a reverential attitude to even the most every day celebrations of giving and receiving, of birth and death, of achievements and of failure, and of relationships and understanding, this is a path that will appeal to westerners who enjoy being actively involved in celebrations, church going, clubs and associations and other types of ceremonies.
Combining the Paths
You do not have to limit yourself to one expression, but can practice hatha yoga, taking care of your physical body, while simultaneously cultivating the lifestyle of a Bhakti Yogi, expressing compassion for everyone you meet. Whichever, avenue of yogic expression draws your interest; it will probably be the right yoga path for you.
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